Rocket Lab’s plan to search for life on Venus in 2023 just got more exciting

The 2023 life-hunting mission will be just the beginning, if all goes according to plan. The California-based company aims to launch a private Venus mission in 2023 to hunt for signs of life in the clouds where scientists just spotted the possible biosignature gas phosphine. But that landmark effort will be just the beginning, if all goes according to plan. “We don’t want to do one mission — we want to do many, many missions there,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck told Monday (Sept. 14), hours after scientists unveiled the Venus phosphine discovery. Beck has long wanted to help explore Venus, which he thinks has not yet received the scientific attention it deserves. “Venus is well and truly undervalued,” he said.

Venus was once a temperate world like Earth, with plentiful surface water — including, many scientists believe, large oceans that may have persisted for much of the planet’s 4.5-billion-year history. But a runaway greenhouse effect eventually took hold on the second rock from the sun, baking out Venus’ water and transforming its surface into the scorched, high-pressure hellscape it is today. And “hellscape” really isn’t an exaggeration: Surface temperatures on Venus hover around 872 degrees Fahrenheit (467 Celsius), hot enough to melt lead. Learning exactly what happened to Venus, and why, is of great interest to planetary scientists. And the planet’s evolution serves as a sort of cautionary tale for Earth, where human activity has ushered in a period of dramatic warming, Beck noted.

Then there’s Venus’ astrobiological potential, which may not be restricted to the ancient past. Though the planet’s surface turned infernal, researchers think a pocket of potential habitability remained high in the clouds, about 30 miles (50 kilometres) up, and survived into the present day. Way up there, temperatures and pressures are quite similar to those found on Earth at sea level (though Venusian clouds are mostly made of sulfuric acid rather than water vapor). That cloud layer is where a team of scientists recently spotted the fingerprint of phosphine, a gas that here on Earth is produced only by microbes and human activity, as far as we can tell. And it’s the environment that Rocket Lab wants to probe with that 2023 mission and its hoped-for successors.